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Last Updated: 04/09/2012
Mexico’s “War on Drugs”: A Successful Strategy?
Pamela Huerta

Researcher Pamela Huerta offers a nuanced review of Mexico’s anti-drug policy and untangles some of the many socio-economic, political, and institutional factors that have led to heightened levels of violence in the country. As the author demonstrates, the Mexican case sheds light on the larger questions of violence in the region and around the world, especially as they relate to highly profitable and illegal economic activities.

General wisdom directly links illegal activities with violence. The more illegal an activity is, the more violent is expected to be. The logic is that, since they operate outside the law, they cannot resort to institutions, the legal system or the state to settle disputes. Consequently, agreements are settled privately and often through violence.[1] Violence becomes the means to regulate an unregulated market. Yet, illegality itself does not explain violence and we find wide variations within and among countries.

The same illegal activity can “produce” violence in some countries (wildlife poaching in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Zimbabwe), but not in others (Namibia and South Africa.)[2] Some scholars attribute this to the commodity-type and its profitability.[3] Yet even the highly-profitable drug market is connected with violence in Afghanistan and Colombia; while in Japan, the large methamphetamine market is relatively peaceful.[4] Violence also varies in time and space: Burma’s opium market was financing around 25 armed groups until the 1990s boom, which opened an “exit-option” for demobilizing the rebels.[5]

Under what conditions is violence more or less likely? What are the purposes served by violence in illicit markets? What accounts for the different levels and types of violence within and across countries? Based on the Mexican case, this paper aims to shade light on the debate by analysing the main dynamics triggering current drug-related violence. The case is relevant because it exhibits dramatic changes: by 2001, there were 1,080 drug-related killings; but by 2010, the figure increased to 15,273.[6] Moreover, since mid-90s homicides exhibited a downward trend, but it suffered a sharp reversal, reaching a total of 34,550 killings from 2007-2010.[7] This means that drug-related killings during the first three years of President Calderon were almost four times bigger than the total figure of Fox administration (at 8,901).[8] Geographically speaking, violence is very concentrated: only four states –Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Guerrero and Baja California– account for 84% of all homicides during 2010.[9] Finally, although violence is attributed to fights between drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and portrayed as a sign of a successful anti-drug policy, there has been a remarkable trend towards “indiscriminate” violence, increasing civilian “casualties,” mass graves, disappeared persons, kidnaps, and killings of journalists and immigrants.

Figure 1

Figure 2

It has been well documented that the post-revolutionary government and the DTOs developed control and mediation mechanisms that allowed for a relative containment of violence. Following this line of thought, public discourse has attributed violence to the breakdown of informal agreements, mainly due to the late-80s increased political competition and the security and judicial reforms. Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to affirm that informal agreements were eroded. Corruption did not end with the change of government and the transition to democracy in 2000. In 2008 the General Attorney Office (PGR) showed evidence of high-level officers of the Specialised Office on Organized Crime (SIEDO) being bribed by the Beltran-Leyva DTO, including Noe Ramirez Mandujano, President Calderon’s first “drug-star” and Victor Garay Cadena, the Federal Preventive Police (PFP) acting Commissioner.[10] Moreover, a study of the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) revealed that cocaine traffickers spend $500 million a year on bribery, which doubles the PGR’s budget.[11] In 1996 the PGR estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the judicial police was corrupt,[12] and by 2000, more than 1,200 federal police officers and a third of the PGR were fired for alleged links with DTOs.[13] Furthermore, contrary to what would be expected, violence followed a downward trend from the early-90s till mid-2000s.

What explains then current drug-related violence? The factors and mechanisms intervening are certainly mixed and complex. Here, I will focus on one of the aspects: the anti-drug strategy followed by President Calderon. Building on Friman’s vacancy chains approach,[14] I will argue that amputation and decapitation strategies have created vacuums, altering the balance of power among DTOs, and between these and the state. The result is an increase in violence: against the state as a retaliation strategy and to secure the market; among DTOs as an opportunistic strategy looking for filling empty positions, controlling and expanding market shares and routes; and within DTOs as its own members seek internal mobility. The main implications of this process are that DTOs fragment and increase outsourcing of gangs, progressively militarizing and losing organizational control, which leads to a rise in indiscriminate violence.

What purposes are served by violence?

Friman conceptualizes criminal economies as social structures and the basic premise is that when a vacancy emerges in an organization, it generates advancement opportunities for those at the lower levels until the last position is “filled or eliminated.”[15] Amputation strategies, aiming at the lower and visible levels, have the least mobility potential, although they can encourage the emergence of new members; while decapitation strategies, focusing on the leadership, entails greater mobility and encourages rival groups to fill empty positions.[16]

Under a context of formal state confrontation and within a highly competitive and unregulated market, the uses of violence are two-fold: internally, to enhance discipline, punish infractions or traitors and to move upward within the organisation; externally, as a retaliation strategy against the state, and against other DTOs to expand or protect their market share, but also to improve their bargaining power by filling up vacant positions left by arrests or killings in rival organisations. Although not all uses of violence are triggered by vacancy chains, amputation and decapitation strategies exacerbate it, by creating vacuums and deeply altering the balance of power among DTOs.

Mexico’s anti-drug strategy

Current state policy has been based on three pillars: police-military operations to “fragment” DTOs, legal and institutional reforms, and international cooperation.[17] The first military operation was implemented in 2006 in the state of Michoacan and was soon extended to Baja California, Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa. Although military involvement is not new, its presence has been expanded and, more important, it has become the key player in fighting DTOs, replacing civil public force. Regarding the institutional amendments, a deep reform to the PFP was introduced to professionalise the personnel and to develop a “comprehensive system of information” which would allow exchanging databases among public security offices, called Plataforma Mexico.[18] Finally, concerning international efforts, President Bush and Calderon agreed on launching the Merida Initiative, a three-year package of 1.4 billion dollars to fight drug trafficking.

It must be stressed that the strategy’s overall guiding principle has been one of “fragment and control.”[19] As stated by Eduardo Medina Mora, first Attorney General of Calderon administration, the main objective is not “to end drug trafficking but transform it into a public security problem,” as opposed to a national security threat.[20] Nevertheless, the killing or arrest of drug traffickers have altered the relative balance of power among DTOs, shattering formerly cohesive organisations and opening opportunities for rivals to capitalise it, move in and take control. As Freeman states, “A blow to one cartel becomes a business opportunity for another, and the winner uses violence to establish control over new routes and territories.”[21]

The strategy is based on wrong assumptions: while it has undermined the capacity of DTOs to control larger parts of a given territory, this has not meant that territories are left in relative “peace;” rather they have increased the number of contested boundaries. Thus, in one territory we find the presence of diverse DTOs outsourcing an even larger number of gangs who often change affiliation, making the landscape even more complex, and who use violence for a wide-array of activities.

Unintended effects?

Amputation strategies targeting low-level members lead to increased militarization, lose of internal control over the use of violence and its related increase in indiscriminate violence. While decapitation strategies targeting high-rank members, create longer vacancy chains. This exacerbates the aforementioned effects and has an additional impact across the illegal sector by severely destabilising the balance of power among DTOs, triggering violence within the affected organisation and sparking opportunistic violence from rivals trying to capitalise these temporal unstable equilibriums.

Organisational mobility

Photo: Figure 3

Looking at the national and state-level data, there are two cycles of violence sparked by arrests of high-level members. Regarding the national level (Figure 3), the first cycle might be attributed to the arrest of Alfredo Beltrán Leyva “El Mochomo,” which provoked a split of the Beltran-Leyva brothers from the Sinaloa DTO and a subsequent alliance with the Zetas and Juarez DTOs. These events induced violence as they tried to displace the Sinaloa DTO from the transhipment route of Ciudad Juarez-El Paso.[22] Violence was fuelled again in December 2009, after the death of Arturo Beltran Leyva “El Barbas,” accounting for the second cycle. State-level patterns (Figure 4) also followed the same trends in violence, as both DTOs sought to capitalise arrests and killings, and expand their market shares.

Figure 4

Militarisation and outsourcing of gangs

As manpower declines and confrontation with the state is more tacit, DTOs have strong incentives to outsource militarized gangs to secure protection and increase their capacity of retaliation. Although there is no detailed information on the number of gangs working for each DTO from 2000 to 2011, the formal process of militarization can be traced back to the late-90s with the formation of Los Zetas by Cárdenas Guillén (Gulf DTO). Reportedly, the Zetas were recruited from the Mexican Army Special Forces (GAFEs) and were later joined by Kabiles, members of the Guatemalan Special Forces. Unsurprisingly, they were emulated by other DTOs, as the Sinaloa DTO who hired his own enforcement gangs (Los Pelones and Los Negros) and the Juarez DTO (La Linea and Los Aztecas). A report in 2010 estimated that there were between 300 and 500 gangs in Ciudad Juarez, of which only 30 had between 500 and 1,500 members; and 1,500 gangs in Nuevo Leon, of which 20 were allegedly linked to the Zetas.[23] The best known gangs in the North include the Mexicles and Aztecas, which exceed two thousand members and have strong connections and cells in the US.[24] Gangs are not only employed for protection, but their activities have been expanded to include collection of debts or “taxes” among the population, secure drug supply and trafficking routes, discourage defection, among others.[25]

The process of militarization and spread of the use of violence has also been exacerbated by the increased involvement of former military members in the DTOs. Already by 1995, “[...] there were an estimated 900 armed criminal bands in Mexico of which over 50 percent were made up of current or retired members of law enforcement agencies.”[26] From 2001 to 2008 around 170 thousand deserted from the military,[27] and in 2005 1,493 AFI agents (out of 7 thousand) were being investigated for possible criminal activities.[28] Unsurprisingly, increased militarization combined with the availability of weapons, results in an escalation of violence: until February 2010, the government seizure 36 thousand weapons, more than 2,800 grenades and more than 18 thousand vehicles.[29] Supposing that each individual carries a weapon, we are talking about an “irregular force” of 36 thousand men, which corresponds to almost 10% of the Army and surpasses the Federal Police, which comprises only 35 thousand members.[30]


Map 1

The creation of vacancy chains also undermines established mechanisms of internal control, reducing trust and loyalty among their members and, therefore, increasing the probability of fragmentation. DTOs have never been monolithic, treasons are not new and contrary to the common perception, they are not entirely in control of a clearly defined territory; nevertheless, these problems have been exacerbated by militarizing and fragmenting them. Up to mid-2000, we could identify four main DTOs with relatively stable operative locations: Sinaloa (controlling the west coast and with operation bases in Sinaloa, Sonora and Chihuahua); Gulf DTO (based in the northeast with operation bases in Matamoros and Reynosa); Tijuana DTO (based in northwest Mexico); and Juarez DTO (based mainly in the state of Chihuahua.)[31] Conflicts among DTOs also appeared to be more straightforward with the Gulf and Tijuana DTOs fighting against the Sinaloa and Juarez. However, this landscape suffered severe changes in 2007. As has been argued, amputation and decapitation strategies undermine DTOs’ capacity to control large extensions of territory, resulting in an increased number of contested boundaries. Map 2 shows the current configuration of DTOs in Mexico. Clearly, DTOs have fragmented and this has increased the number of organizations in a given territory, multiplying the contested fronts.

Map 2

Indiscriminate violence

Finally, the problem stemming from outsourcing and privatizing protection is that these groups are often less coherent than DTOs, they do not establish clear lines of mandates with the top hierarchies or drug leaders, and therefore are not accountable to them. They often change affiliations and tend to use violence not only for their “assigned” tasks, but also for engaging in other types of illegal activities as extortion, kidnap, thefts, etc. Hence, while DTOs lose control over their enforcers, violence spreads and becomes less “targeted.”

Last year, a group of eight sicarios (hired killers) entered a casino in Monterrey and burned it down, killing 52 people. Until now, it has been argued that the owner owed a “quota” to Los Zetas. Violence perpetrated in public places and against civilians has become more recurrent. In 2008, members of Los Zetas threw grenades into a crowd in Morelia, while people were celebrating the Independence Day, killing 8 civilians and wounding more than 100. In 2010, seventeen teenagers were killed at a party in Ciudad Juarez. The case was explained in terms of ‘mistaken identities’ and ‘wrong location.’[32] The same year, a group entered a rehabilitation clinic for drug addicts in Chihuahua, killing 19 persons. About a week before state elections were held in Tamaulipas, the most popular candidate, Rodolfo Torres (PRI) was assassinated. From 2008 to August 2011, the government in Guerrero found 32 clandestine graves with 138 corpses.[33] The figure joins a balance of 400 deaths found also in mass graves in Tamaulipas and Durango. Finally, 72 immigrants from Central and South America were killed on their way to the US.[34]

The count could go on, but my attempt is to show the wide range of violence Mexico is facing. While we find cases of clear challenge to the state, as the killing of Rodolfo Torres, we also find violence for attaining other illicit activities, as the immigrants’ case, and others of “mistaken identities” and clear opportunism. Public discourse has linked all cases to the “war on drugs,” but we must take a closer look on what accounts for these killings. “Violence makes statements”[35] and produces its own dynamics.

Rethinking Violence

The upsurge in violence cannot be explained only as a function of illegality or in utilitarian terms involving fights between DTOs and the state. Scholars have tended to separate, for academic convenience, utilitarian versus non-utilitarian violence; nevertheless, these conceptions are certainly inaccurate and obscure relevant dynamics that need to be considered. Utilitarian and non-utilitarian violence are part of the same continuum, their boundaries are fuzzy, they overlap[36] and more important, they feed into each other.

Individual accounts on violence stress the construction of identity, reputation and proud. But these forms of expression evolve in a context. Behaviours work within shared understandings and conceptions of permissibility; and within a given context we find motives, incentives, opportunities and controls that promote or inhibit violence.[37] In a culture of impunity, where the authority is seen as corrupt, unreliable and even a source of danger, anomie arises. In this sense, anomie as the “[...] withdrawal of allegiance from conventional norms and a weakening of these norms’ guiding power on behaviour,”[38] is the context under which violence is carried out. As Passas argues, in a context of impunity where legal frameworks do not coincide with traditions and practices, “deviant ‘solutions’ can be seen as keys to ‘success.’ Successful deviance then becomes a normative referent [...]. In the context of massive cultural shifts [...] the sense of right and wrong became fuzzy.”[39] Once perpetrating violence for “utilitarian” ends, the likelihood of expanding it to “non-utilitarian” objectives increases: they reinforce each other. In a culture of lawlessness and impunity, deviance becomes a shared understanding and constructs the boundaries of permissibility, allowing both types of violence to spread.


President Calderon’s campaign flag was the “war on drugs,” stating that if he won the elections, “drug trafficking would have in him ‘its worst nightmare.’”[40] Nevertheless, most analysts agree that the opposite has taken place: DTOs have actually become President Calderon’s “worst nightmare.”[41] The logic behind amputation and decapitation strategies is based on wrong assumptions. Fragmentation does not entail control. It gives incentives for further militarization, multiplies the number of contested boundaries and tends to leave the most violent on the game. Similarly, fragmentation does not guarantee that the new cells will be less violent or less powerful.

Illegality does not necessarily produce violence. This paper has argued that the anti-drug strategies applied by the state triggered violence by creating long vacancy chains. This is not to say that the Mexican government should leave DTOs uncontested; but following a strategy that relies heavily on armed forces, without being able to actually recover spaces from crime and without a comprehensive policy that deals with socio-economic, structural and institutional problems, will lead to its failure and will increase the levels of violence.

[1] (Freeman 2006: 9)

[2] (Snyder and Durán-Mart'nez 2009: 253)

[3] Research on the relation between natural resources and the likelihood of violence is mainly found in the greed and grievance debate and is centred in civil wars (Collier 2000, Ross 2002, Collier and Hoeffler 2004).

[4] (Friman 2009)

[5] (Snyder and Durán-Mart'nez 2009: 267)

[6] See Figure 1

[7] See Figure 2

[8] (TBI Report, 2011: 8)

[9] (Ibid.: 9)

[10] (Chabat 2010b: 12)

[11] (Andreas 1998: 162)

[12] (Ibid.: 164)

[13] (Serrano 2007: 272)

[14] (Friman 2004)

[15] (Ibid.: 54-55)

[16] (Ibid.: 59-61)

[17] (Chabat 2010b: 7)

[18] (Ibid.)

[19] (Ibid.: 6-8)

[20] Cited in Chabat 2010b: 9

[21] (Freeman 2006: 9)

[22] Guerrero (03/11/2010), available at

[23] (Guerrero NAF Report 2010: 21-22)

[24] (Ibid.: 21)

[25] (Williams 2009: 328)

[26] (Pimentel 2000: 52)

[27] (Williams 2009: 328)

[28] (Freeman 2006: 15)

[29] (Arzt and Vázquez 2010: 46)

[30] (Ibid.)

[31] See Map 1 for the 2007 DTOs’ configuration.

[32] (Williams 2010: 31)

[33] (Flores 2011)

[34] All information available at and

[35] (Blok 2001: 111)

[36] (Tilly 2003: 16)

[37] (Ibid.: 20)

[38] (Passas 2000: 20)

[39] (Ibid.: 37)

[40] (Chabat 2010b: 1)

[41] (Ibid.)


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Pamela Huerta holds an MSc in Comparative Politics (Conflict Studies) from The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE, UK) and a BA in Political Science and International Relations from the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE, Mexico).